Terrified of being naked? Join the club. We're force-fed a constant stream of tight tums and hourglass figures that make it pretty much impossible to not feel self-conscious about the way we look. It's hard to have sex when you keep thinking about how unattractive you feel.
We weren't born hating our bodies, so where does this hate come from? As children, we just inhabited them unselfconsciously, not thinking about whether our stomachs stuck out or if our muscles were the right size. If you look at children playing or moving around in their bodies, their lack of awareness of how they look or what they ‘should’ look like seems incredibly freeing.
At some point, as we get older, we all start to receive messages about our bodies and the bodies of others from the outside world. We might be told directly (and cruelly) that there is something wrong with the way we look, but a lot of messaging is more subtle than this. A lot of advertising, media and images we see of other bodies tend to be one body type; this can send the message that ‘desirable’ bodies require certain features (being skinny, being white or fair, being able-bodied, to name just a few). We might hear the adults around us talk about their bodies or other people’s. Comments at family gatherings about who has gained weight since last year, or how bad Sharon’s dye-job is, start to insidiously push one key message: that there is a hierarchy of bodies and how they look. And that you don’t want yours to be at the bottom.
It’s easy to start developing thinking habits that focus on this hierarchy and where we and everyone else stand in it. Comparing how we look with other people (especially people of the same gender as us) and making favourable or unfavourable conclusions can become second nature. Even when we come out on top in these comparisons, it’s a precarious place to sit. The top of the body pyramid is uncomfortable and easy to topple from as soon as someone 'hotter' walks in the room.
Our relationships with our bodies can be further complicated by our health and life experiences. Our bodies don’t operate at 100% all the time. Many of us struggle with chronic pain or ill-health that stops us from doing what’s important to us, as well as visible disabilities that can draw the attention of others and let us know us that our bodies are considered different or even wrong. If you’ve gone through childbirth, invasive operations or traumatic experiences, you might be struggling to return to the relationship you had with your body before this - even if it was a very positive one.
The body positivity movement, championed by queer and trans people, fat and disabled women and people of colour (people whose bodies are often automatically seen as ‘other’ or non-normal), has gone a long way to challenge these standards and point out that all bodies have value and the capacity to be beautiful. ‘Love your body’ has become a mantra for the 21st century, as well as a very instagrammable hashtag. But there’s a potentially unhelpful message in this notion too; that to enjoy life, and enjoy sex, you need to love and feel good about your body most, if not all, of the time. And that’s quite an ask. Loving ourselves is a well-intentioned aim, but what about when we fall short of this? It can be a source of guilt or even shame to know that you can’t conjure up the body confidence that it feels like you *should* have to have great sex. Using ‘love your body!’ as another stick to beat yourself with is probably not going to help your relationship with your body in the long term. So how can we shake ourselves free of these judgments, so we can just get on with being in our bodies? Being in and experiencing the world as it happens (especially pleasurable experiences...) is a key skill in learning and tuning into what you like in sex so that you can get more of it. This is going to be very important for some of the sessions you’ll be working through.
Challenging the external focus, the ‘Am I winning or losing?’ measure that can produce so much anxiety, is vital. External information of how we’re doing can be valuable but it’s not everything and focusing on it can lead you to miss something important. If and when you notice yourself comparing your body with other people, this is a great opportunity to refocus on what’s happening internally. Just noticing what’s going on for you internally, tuning into it and maybe naming it (I feel unsettled, I feel energetic, I feel some pain in my knee, I feel sad, I feel like I need a wash…) can open up your experience of who you are and how the world is for you.
You can take this further by making time for physical activities that aren’t about achieving something. A lot of what we do each day can have a measurement aspect to it - how did I do at work today? Is the house clean? Am I running far enough? Finding an activity where it’s less about achieving something and more about just getting out there and doing something with our bodies can be a reminder that there can be more to life than just trying to get to the top of the pyramid, especially when it comes to our bodies. If you need motivation to get out there, focus on doing rather than getting somewhere. The difference is ‘I went to yoga and moved my body for an hour’ rather than ‘I went to yoga and did all the positions perfectly’.
If body love and body hate are not helping your relationship with your body, what about body neutrality? This is about getting away from making intense positive or negative judgements about your body and how it looks, and focuses more on acceptance.
You might also find it helpful to seek out images of bodies like yours that are presented neutrally (for example, being shown as an illustration to a story or a character in media that you enjoy). Looking at celebratory or positive images is great too, but just seeing yourself out there and knowing that’s ok - that’s enough.
You’ll find a lot of these ideas and skills helpful for the modules you’ll be working through here. If you want to learn more about tuning into your body’s feelings and experiences in the world, have a look at Reconnecting with your body which talks more about how disconnection happens and what we can do about it.